Facing unprecedented international and domestic pressure following turbulent months that nearly brought the country to war with the world’s largest superpower, Iran is doubling down on its strategy of defiance, giving little ground to opponents at home or rivals abroad.
In a Friday prayer sermon that was his first since 2012, supreme leader Ali Khamenei signalled increased repression at home and continued paramilitary operations abroad. He described the administration of President Donald Trump as “clowns” seeking to harm the country.
And he heaped praise on Iran’s secretive clandestine overseas Quds Force, describing it as a “humanitarian” organisation that stands up for the “oppressed” of the region in a fight “without borders”.
“The spokespeople of the evil US government keep repeating that we stand beside Iranian people,” he said. “You are lying. Even if you are standing beside Iranian people, it is just so you can stab them with your poisoned daggers.”
The crowd responded with ritualistic chants of “death to America”, “death to England”, and “death to Israel”.
Mr Khamenei took to the pulpit at a crucial and perilous time for Iran. After abandoning a 2015 nuclear accord forged by his predecessor and world powers, the Trump administration began imposing harsh sanctions on the country that have crippled Iran’s economy, and escalated military tensions between the two nations. On-and-off anti-government protests have rocked the country since November.
Iran’s actions are often far more tempered than its rhetoric. But experts worry that it’s on a dangerous collision course with the US, which is openly pining for regime change, and could begin acting in dangerous ways that could lead to war.
“They’re not reckless,” Douglas London, who retired from the CIA clandestine service last year after decades watching Iran, told The Independent of Iran’s leadership. “They’ve not been reckless in the past. But as they get more desperate, I think there’s the potential for them to become more dangerous. They’re not going to go gentle into that good night.”
Hostilities with Washington spiked following the American assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s subsequent attack on a US airbase in Iraq that, US officials admitted late Thursday, injured 11 military personnel.
In the tense hours after the Iranian ballistic missile strike on the US base, possibly the first open attack by another nation on American forces since the Second World War, Iranian air defence personnel shot down a Ukrainian Airlines flight in error, killing all 176 passengers and crew aboard, prompting more protests and more international pressure.
Though Mr Khamenei acknowledged the grief of those who lost loved ones in the 8 January plane crash, he took no responsibility for what he described as a “bitter” incident, nor pinned blame on the Revolutionary Guard commanders who downed the plane, nor even promised restitution or justice for the victims.
Instead he lambasted those who protested following the plane crash as “agents” of Iran’s “enemy,” while effusively praising Soleimani as a hero of the nation.
Adding to Iran’s pressures, the 2015 nuclear deal that held even more troubles at bay is coming undone. On Wednesday, responding to Iran’s removal of limits on its nuclear programme, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany invoked a dispute resolution mechanism that could result in even more sanctions on the country.
Though Mr Khamenei said Iran was open to “negotiations” with any country other than the US, he also described the European nations as “puppets” of their “master” in the White House.
“We have no qualms about negotiating – not with the US, but with the others,” he said. “Just not from a position of weakness, rather from one of strength.”
His speech, somewhat anticipated, was devoid of any new policies or responses to the increased pressure from below by surging youth and women demanding change, and by the US and its western allies. His allies in the Council of Guardians recently disqualified hundreds of candidates from running in upcoming parliamentary elections as insufficiently loyal to the system, and some officials worry low turnout will mar the 21 February vote.
Hundreds of Iranians were killed in protests over fuel price hikes in November that were violently suppressed by regime security forces. Small anti-government protests erupted again after the Revolutionary Guard admitted it was behind the downing of the Ukrainian civilian jet after denying it for days. Young Iranians, women, and ethnic and religious minorities continue to smoulder with resentment against the regime.
“He was trying to re-fortify the classic Islamic Republic message which is about resistance, specifically against the United States,” said Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert at Chatham House. “Clearly he’s quite worried about the forthcoming elections and perceptions of legitimacy.”
One analyst suggested the main purpose of having the 80-year-old Khamenei deliver a sermon was to lift his spirits by bringing him close to the chants and emotion of the regime’s most diehard supporters.
Mr London said the Ayatollah’s tone has long been predictable.
“He recognises that they are not out of the woods and they have a problem,” he said. “But I don’t think they have new ways to solve their problems. They are prisoners of their own revolutionary ideology. It doesn’t give them a lot of room for accommodation.”